One of the things that I’ve learned in my twenty five years of social work practice is that humans can be absolutely vile to each other. The naiveté of my youth left me wondering how people could kill, rape, embezzle, molest, steal, and violate the most sacred trusts. From the little corner of the world that I work in however I’ve realized that these incomprehensible insanities are real. In short, nothing surprises me anymore.
So I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that Barry Freundel had set up a whole voyeur ‘set’ in the Mikva. While the sophistication of his technological prowess was novel (I can barely synchronize my phone with my computer) that Freundel would do what he did is not surprising. I’ve long ago learned that the observation of the Talmudic sages, ‘no one is trustworthy when it comes to sexual impulses’ was spot on. While the excessive calls among the ultra-orthodox for separation of the genders is reflective of a sad and silly caricature of humanity, I also know that it is just as naïve to believe that sexuality can be treated as a casual, no-risk, arena of human activity. As Barry Freundel has reminded us: it certainly isn’t.
Beyond the ugly reminder of our shared human frailty and the need to examine Mikva procedures, the Freundel scandal has brought another vital issue into stark relief: human dignity. In the days following the revelation of Freundel’s voyeurism, victims, activists, and commentators spoke of his actions as humiliating and robbing women of their dignity. This is certainly true; his prying eyes invaded a space of great symbolic importance at moments of great personal meaning. This is a terrible deed.
Yet, and I may anger a few by saying these words, other than the pure quantitative dimension of his violation (a rabbi, a mikva, and women) what was so different than the intrusions into privacy that are celebrated in the pages of newspapers, Twitter Feeds, Facebook Pages, Whatsapp groups, Instagram followings, and so forth? Our societal emptiness and insecurities have made voyeurism the ‘go-to’ way to fill the void. When the sexual orientation of an Apple executive is front page news and the death spiral travails of a former childhood actress drive ‘likes’ and ‘views’ then we really need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our own inner lives.
In fact, it is the inner life that has been forgotten altogether. We have confused content with meaning. We have confused the inside with the outside. Our inner lives have been taken over by the second hand ideas of others, a nauseating slop of fear, insecurity, bigotry, and ‘monetizing’ commercialism. Perhaps, worst of all, we have enslaved ourselves to the idea that dignity is a social commodity, a commodity that can be bestowed or robbed by others. We have forgotten that dignity is an inside ‘game’, the outcome of inner reflection between our treasured ideals and our personal conduct.
One of the most enduring images of human dignity and depravity is a photo taken in a Nazi death camp. In the moments before their execution, Jews were forced to strip naked so as to make their murder even more humiliating. But the Nazis made an epic goof; those holy Jews, living and dying for their highest ideals, got the last laugh. In their martyrdom, they reminded us what we are inside is what counts and that wielding a gun or a camera makes us laughable.
Barry Freundel has done a terrible thing. Procedures and policies in the Mikva need to be revised and tightened. The rage of the moment cannot be allowed to wane until our Mikvaot reflect the loftiest ideals of Judaism. But let us remind those victims (and ourselves) that their dignity was never in the hands of any voyeur, rabbi or otherwise. Their dignity lay in the bravery of purpose to live their lives on their own terms, based on their deepest aspirations. And that is greatest dignity of all.